Monday, May 23, 2011

The End of the Road

"Bot-ter, Bot-ter, Bot-ter". The children's plodding chanting is out of rhythm with the swiftness of their feet, moving in a run towards the dirt road. I lean forward to yell into my motorbike driver's ear:

"What does 'botter' mean?"

He turns his head, the whipping wind carrying his voice back to my end of the cycle. "They say like 'faranji'; 'white person'."

Well, I think, it's better than the typical Ethopian greeting of "you". "You" which can be employed singularly, launched from the mouth of a passerby on the street, like a wad of spit, "YOU", or, in multiplicity, running like a word train in one long breath out of children's mouths: "youyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyou.....". Smiling, I turn around and wave at the crowd of kids who pursue us through the dust.

The driver slows up, pulling off to the side of the road. We've made it to a village of the Ari people, one of the multitude of distinct tribes that populate the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. Walking away from the road, the driver leads me back into the bush, where a women steps out of a small hut made of sticks and mud to greet us. She is stunning, beautiful in the way that make Ethiopian women the most gorgeous on earth (with apologies to the Argentinian and Burmese): sharp, Arabic features and dark, African skin.

She speaks. The driver translates into his own broken English, "Are you medicine?"

"You mean a doctor? No."

"Her baby is sick." The woman says some more, showing off her beautiful smile at the end of her sentence. "She says her baby is like faranji; white skin."

He means the baby is pale. I smile. They take me inside. Sure enough, there is a child of about four years old laying ill in the hut.

"Malaria. She took to clinic, but medicine too expensive. She buy this" - he shows a package of pills - "but it is not work."

My brow furrows. They both smile. The driver slaps me on the back. "This is Africa" he says. I'm unable to return their light-heartedness. Is it an invented sob story for the benefit of the money in my pocket? Possibly. We share some coffee cooked over a wood fire inside the small home. I say my goodbyes and hand over forty birr (about $2.40), an amount I determine to be generous by Ethiopian currency standards, but not innappropriately so. What can I say, I'm a sucker for a pretty face and a seriously ill child.

A night passes.

The next day I've made it out to Key Afar. From the window of the hot and overly-populated bus I spot my first of the Banna people. Standing by the side of the road with his Kalishnakov draped across his back, he is nude except for a short wrap around his hips. And, of course, his jewelry. So much jewelry. Leg and wrist and arm and neck and head bands of brightly colored beads. Brass bangles on forearms and bicepts. The front half of his head is shaved, the back half pulled back in tightly braided cornrows. Each earlobe is pierced three or four times, big holes with colored plastic stuck through. He is colorful and tribal and alien and alive and it is like nothing I've ever seen in person, the sight calling out like a neon sign: "This is it; the end of the road."

Later, once the weekly Key Afar market has kicked off, there are more. Many more. Women too, in goatskin skirts with backs hanging down between their legs like tails, and hair tightly braided and dyed a maroonish red by clay. The market is overwhelming, my circuitry nearly cutting out. I struggle for a mooring, searching for adjectives to make some sense of this: "native"; "colorful", "exotic", "indigenous". I wander amongst the people perched on the ground selling seeds and fruit and clothing and, for better or worse, right or wrong, less flattering, more judgmental adjectives enter my mindstream: "primitive"; "savage".

Eventually, after some hours, I walk away from the market, out into the fields and a local boy/wannabe guide asks if I would like to see the village. I accept. Climbing over a perimeter fence, I walk towards a simple home and am introduced to an older woman and her family. But something is off, the situations just doesn't feel right. I duck into their home, the tiny structure of sticks where they lay down at night on a thin sheet of goat leather. This just feels wrong. I try to establish a rapport, pulling out my arsenal of finely-honed, English-free relationship-building gags. But I can barely elicit a smile. The destended-bellied children look on with blank stares, flies buzzing in the corners of their eyes and the cuts on their legs.

No. This is not right. I am ready to leave. But first, the moment I've been dreading ever since I first contemplated coming south to see some of the tribes. My boy guide says it: "Take some pictures."

No. I am uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.

He looks confused and insists. I hem and haw. He implores. Finally I succomb to his urging and the dark side of myself that wants the shot. I snap some pictures. Then hand over more birr than is required, trying to soothe the rash of my moral failings with monetary balm.

We leave the village. My chest is hollow with self-loathing. Because though the lens of my camera points only forward, adjectives are bi-directional. And reviewing the paid-for pictures in the viewfinder of my digital camera I see those words whose arrows are pointed back at the photographer: "intrusive"; "voyeuristic"; "exploitative". Never again, I resolve, not like that.

Another night.

Today is a special day for one Banna boy. Today he partakes in the right of passage known as "bull-jumping." His extended family has come from all over the valley, walking up to eighty kilometers to be there for the celebration. You hear them coming twenty minutes before they arrive. Mouth horns blaring, loud singing. Finally, stumbling into the small village covered in sweat, they kiss each of their relatives three times before sitting down to rest.

I spend six hours in the midst of the celebrations. There is simply too much color, too many goings-on to describe. Too much unabashed nudity and beaded jewelry. Too many gag-inducing (for me) concoctions shared out of communal drinking bowls. Too many songs and dances. Far too many rituals.

Although two specific ritual traditions stand out, begging to be described. The first is, of course, the culmination of the whole affair, the actual bull-jumping. The cattle are all herded together by a circle of chanting, singing, bell-ringing, yelling, extended Banna family. Around fourteen are caught, each one held in line with the rest by two Banna men, one on the horns, one on the tail. The fifteen year old boy of the hour strips naked in front of the crowd, and in this clothes-less state, he runs towards the bulls and leaps onto the back of the first in line. He doesn't stop, he runs right across the line of bovines, leaping down from the last on the other side. A five second pause. And then he turns and runs back to where he began. Back the other way. And a final return. Four times across their backs, until one of the bulls squirms loose and the boy is told he is done.

You know, bull-jumping.

The second ritual which cannot go unmentioned is the whipping of the women. It sounds horrible, and going in, I'm not sure I want to see it. I envision cowering women shreiking and crying in pain as they are mercilessly beaten by Banna men. But this vision could not be farther from the reality. The point of the inflicted beatings is that the women closest to the bull-jumper, his mother and sisters and cousins, ask to be whipped so they might adorn scars showing how much they love the boy. The women are singing and chanting, taunting the designated whippers. Eventually the boys come out and the women are wild, they are chanting, grabbing at the boys, trying to get a hold of the long thin sticks that are to be slapped across their chests. Finally the boy raises his arm and the selected woman stands in front, singing, stamping her feet. The boy's arm flies forward, the stick whipping into the woman's front and arm. She doesn't cry. She doesn't yell. Usually there isn't even a whince. Instead she dives forward trying to grab the stick. She grabs at the boy's shorts. He runs away through the crowd giggling. The woman keeps taunting. The tone of the affair is more like an adolescent pillow-fight then anything you could call a beating. I find myself smiling and laughing and wondering if the whipping actually hurts at all. And then I see the blood running down one of the woman's arms...

Six hours. Six hours I spent with the songs and foot stomping and bell ringing and strange rituals and eating and drinking and, yes, whipping. Six hours of the most...

No. No more adjectives. Mere words of description do not encompass what this is. Because accurately conveying this is a matter of scale. And to see what this is, really what this is, we need to zoom out. Out and back. Out across space and back across time. Back before the Magic Machine of Metal that will pick me up miles into the sky and transport me to the otherside of the planet in a matter of hours. Back before the Polish shtettles of the eighteenth century that are still reflected today in the Hassidic neighborhood of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem. Before those sanctified biblical times of two-thousand years ago, whose architecture is preserved in the Middle East and whose dress of shawls, staffs and crowns survives in northern Ethiopia. Even before the five-thousand year old Vedic rituals which can still be witnessed at the ghats of Nepal.

Because before all that, before the blink-of-an-eye that is the latest five-thousand years of human history, this is what there was. Everywhere. For - as far as human existence is concerned - virtually forever. It is our heritage and history. Our shared origins. Animism. Subsistence living. Paganism. Tribalism.

This isn't the end of the road. It's the beginning.


  1. You have had a journey of the ages; one I know is beyond description. And yet, the magic of your words has let me travel with you to places I wouldn't dare to go and share experiences I would never have. Thank you Noah for bringing me along with you. Even when you are far away, it is a joy to BE with you.
    But now, as you know, my greatest joy will be to welcome you home.
    One more, safe travels...

  2. Hi Noah. Welcome home! I felt compelled to write to you when I read your blog because I'm so touched by this post expressing with such clarity the culture shock of returning to the States after an amazing trip abroad of the kind that you undertook. I'm proud of you for your courage and for the depth of spirit and insight that you obviously acquired on your journey. The prayer is incandescent in feeling. Thank you for posting it.